Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Risky business

Matthew 25: 14-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

November 16, 2014

Thirty-six years ago this month, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, was assassinated, along with George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco.  In the 1970’s many psychiatrists still deemed homosexuality a mental illness.  Harvey tried three times to get elected.  He received numerous death threats as well as loud cheers of support.  

People called Harvey a megalomaniac because he was always seeking attention and publicity.  Harvey had a serious motive behind his seemingly self-centered behavior.  He knew that to most folks, gays and lesbians were invisible, much like women, blacks, the disabled, those with mental illness, and other minorities were often treated and still are.  So Harvey made himself as visible as possible.  He wisely surmised that a paralyzing fear was the gay person’s worst enemy.  Having an openly gay man elected to political office constituted real hope for those still wounded and in the closet.

Harvey Milk could have led a quiet, private life; there are some who wished he had.  He was a native of Long Island, served in the Korean War, and returned to Manhattan to work as a Wall Street investment banker.  In the imagery of the parable read for us this morning, he could have taken the riches of who he was and buried himself in a safe existence.  Instead he invested himself in organizing minorities to become a majority, working with unions and disconnected ethnic and racial groups.  In the few months he served as a city supervisor he helped to pass a city ordinance supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

Harvey also knew what he was getting into, that he was risking his life by serving so openly and so passionately in the public sphere.  He thought of assassination as something he could not avoid.  He even made a recording, a will shortly before his death, including the famous line:  “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson we meet Jesus in Jerusalem once again during the last week of his life.  We hear more of “The Little Apocalypse”.  Jesus has lived openly and passionately for God’s kingdom, foretelling his death on numerous occasions.  Soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder.  If there had been the same kind of publicity and media attention then as there is now, perhaps a reporter would have asked, “Jesus, any last words?”  And with that, the reporter might have heard something like this:

“It’s like a man going off on an extended trip.  He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities.  To one he gave five thousand dollars, another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities.  Then he left.  Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment.  The second did the same.  But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them.  The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work!  You did your job well.  From now on, be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work!  You did your job well.  From now on, be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error.  I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money.  Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious.  ‘That’s a terrible way to live!  It’s criminal to live cautiously like that!  If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?  The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most.  And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.  Throw him out into utter darkness.’”  1

First of all, let us remind ourselves that this story is not about money.  This is a parable, with meanings on many levels.  Though the financial tumult in recent years may tempt us to believe it would be better to bury our money rather than risk it in the stock market, this is not what this parable is about.  Jesus has come to the end of his days; I think he might have something more valuable on his mind than money.

However, let us look at what a talent is and how much it is worth.  A talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages for a day laborer, a denarius being the daily wage; therefore a talent was worth approximately 5,500 denari.  Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase likened this to a thousand dollars, but let’s put this into today’s terms.  The average immigrant day laborer earns less than $15,000 for a year’s work; multiplied by 15 years equals $225,000.  For the equivalent of five talents, 75 years of wages, that would be $1,125,000.  These servants were being entrusted with an extravagant opportunity, more money than what they would see perhaps in a lifetime.

Having been given stewardship over so much—even the one talent was a great sum—we can understand the reaction of the third servant who buried his master’s wealth in a safe place.  And we who follow Jesus can often confuse ourselves with the third servant, assuming that because we see ourselves as having not so much to give, that we must not have much ability, that we somehow have disappointed God, that God does not trust us.

But these are our self-imposed limitations, both on ourselves and on our view of God.  There are times we see ourselves in terms of what we lack, and this is a danger especially to small churches.  Even though there is great blessing and generosity in this parable, it is still so easy to focus on only the warning.  Even though we worship a God of love, grace, and forgiveness, there are times we lead our lives and lead our community of faith in the shadow of a God of high expectations, consigning ourselves to a life lived in that same shadow, that utter darkness.

And then there is the long absence, the long time away of the Master.  Even though this church is young in its existence, at times I would bet it has felt like a long time in this church:  a long time of doing the work of ministry, often many tasks done by many of the same individuals:  a long time since having an extended relationship with a settled pastor:  a long time of having goals and vision deferred.  That can wear on a congregation and on its individual members and leaders.  

This is the true oppression under which we human beings can suffer.  We allow our circumstances to dictate our dreams.  We can begin to feel paralyzed, which becomes our greatest enemy.  Everything that makes us unique and vibrant and full of life becomes invisible not only to others but also to ourselves.

Part of the third servant’s mistake was that he acted alone.  The other two servants, in order to double the master’s investment, would have interacted with others in ways that brought risk but also great joy.  In community we are called to connect with one another, especially those we may have difficulty with, and risk being visible by openly and freely sharing the riches God has given us.

What are those riches, those talents of which we are to be stewards?  Jesus is speaking here not of income or giftedness but of the gospel, that Good News of God’s radical, amazing, life-transforming love that has been lavished upon each one of us.  God is ready to give to us, according to our ability to risk for the kingdom.  Do we see ourselves as able or as less than able?  Do we desire transformation of this faith community?  That means that lives will be transformed as well.  Are we ready for not only this church to be transformed but our very lives to be transformed as well?  This is what it means to be open to the gospel and to share it freely and visibly with our neighbors.

There is no failure when it comes to sharing the gospel, the love of God.  Mother Theresa once said, “The success of love is in the loving—it is not in the result of loving.  Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.”  The success of the gospel is in the living out of the gospel, in the sharing of it.  The value of the gospel is determined by how we use it.  Do we keep it safe, taking it out only on Sundays and in desperate situations or do we risk daily what it means to be a visible image of God?


Is this scary?  We would be foolish to say it isn’t.  To love is to risk, to open ourselves and to open the gospel to others, not knowing the outcome or even being guaranteed an outcome, is risky.  To have loved and been wounded again and again is difficult to recover from.

There is a powerful saying in Spanish about what to do with the troubles we experience, las cosas de la vida that we live through:  Hacer de tripas corazón.  Literally, it means ‘to make a heart of guts’.  Feel the fear and do it anyway, which is really a definition of courage.  Let’s celebrate the life the gospel gives us and share it with others.  We need to dream often together and dream big.  What is our biggest strength?  How can we use the power with which God has entrusted us?  How might we let this community know that this is a church of visible Christians and a sign of hope for others still in darkness?

Ultimately, the one who told the parable is the servant who was entrusted with the whole of the Gospel, the Word made flesh, who risked it all, and lost it.  And because of this, lives were changed and transformed, the Gospel living through those changed lives.  That’s resurrection, a risky business if ever there was one.

What is God calling us toward today?  How might we focus more on being rather than on doing?  What limitations do we need to shed personally and congregationally in order to become God’s partners in healing the world?

The invitation, the call is given:  enter into the joy of the Lord, from this day forth be God’s partner.  Transformation is upon us.  Our one wild and precious life awaits us.  Those still in darkness are on the lookout.  The risky business of the gospel beckons.  God is ready.  Are we?


1.     Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO:  NavPress, 2002), Matthew 25: 13-40.

What we do with the Gospel shapes who we are and our life together:

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